Enlarge /. Relativity Space is testing a component of its Aeon engine on the E-2 test bench at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi in December.
STENNIS SPACE CENTER, Miss. – David Giger climbed 26 steel steps and stepped on a test platform for rocket engines. To his left, an uninterrupted population of stately pines spread across the Mississippi lowlands. Straight ahead, Giger had a clear view of two test stands from the Apollo period through the trees. "It's quite a prospect," he said.
Here the past meets the future. Giger and his company Relativity Space try to make the most futuristic rockets. To do this, they came to the NASA center, where rocket scientists tested the powerful engines that brought people to the moon half a century ago. The theory of relativity has occupied more and more buildings and test benches in the past two years to build a rocket that consists almost entirely of 3D printed parts. And if that goal weren't fantastic enough, Relativity will also try to automate the missile assembly and testing process as much as possible, with the ultimate goal of additively building a missile on the surface of Mars.
It is a wild, seemingly impossible dream – and yet it has sparked the imagination of aerospace investors. The theory of relativity has raised $ 185 million in four years and hired industry leaders like Giger. As a program manager for the company's Terran 1 rocket, Giger spent more than a decade at SpaceX, where he oversaw the development of the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Today, he's overseeing Relativity's plans to launch its first missile, perhaps as early as next year. When we were on the E-4 test bench in Mississippi last month, I tried to do more than just admire the view.
I really wanted to see if the relativity space might be real.
The origins of the theory of relativity
The company's co-founder, Tim Ellis, grew up in Plano, Texas. To pass the time in his early teens in the sprawling but rather boring suburb north of Dallas, Ellis played with LEGOs. Passionate. For 14 to 16 hours a day, he designed his own spaceships from large piles of black LEGOs (because they looked "coolest"). He built his own designs, admired them and then broke them apart. To date, one of Ellis' thumbs is permanently bent backwards from this effort.
This mix of creativity and the desire to build things led Ellis to the University of Southern California in 2008, where he specialized in aerospace engineering. There he was involved in the university's Rocket Propulsion Lab, a student group that builds amateur rockets. He became friends with another aerospace engineer, Jordan Noone, who was to continue running the club to become the first student organization to launch a rocket beyond the edge of space 100 km above the surface. Though they failed, their missile experience in Mojave, California and Black Rock, Nevada led the couple to prestigious aerospace internships and then to jobs. Ellis would go to Blue Origin and Noone to SpaceX.
From 2014 to 2015, Ellis worked full-time for Blue Origin in the drive department. At that point, the company had been intensively testing the BE-3 engine and started preparatory work for the much larger BE-4 rocket engine. At the company's headquarters outside of Seattle, Ellis looked for ways to include additive manufacturing in the manufacturing process. "I started the metal printing program there," said Ellis. “I was a young, optimistic engineer. I thought the pressure would replace the entire factory. "
It was not like that. Until January 2015, Ellis and Noone spoke most evenings on the phone around 10 p.m. on their way home. Ellis lived in downtown Seattle and no one was commuting to Pasadena from SpaceX's Hawthorne, California headquarters. Both were just at the beginning of their careers and tried to establish themselves with companies that are already considered technology leaders in the space industry. Maybe it was because they were young – not even 25 years old – but they felt that things weren't moving fast enough. Ellis and Noone looked at the missiles and spaceships built at SpaceX and Blue Origin, and saw processes that were still labor intensive. They saw untapped potential in the emerging technologies of 3D printing and automation.
"In the beginning, we only talked about things conceptually," Ellis said of the late-night calls. "Finally, we realized that we both wanted a company that relied on technology all-in to really make a breakthrough."Enlarge /. Tim Ellis, founder and CEO of Relativity Space at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2019.
JASON CONNOLLY / AFP via Getty Images
So they did it. Ellis and Noone quit their work in late 2015. A few days later, at the beginning of the new year, they founded Relativity Space to shape the future they had imagined.
Ellis, who assumed the role of chief executive officer, remembers the first email he sent from his new Relativity Space account. It was Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, and an investor who was famous for his leading role on the Shark Tank television program. They had a common background in northern Texas, and Cubans invested in technology startups. Ellis thought his efforts out of the blue were worth trying. He received an answer five minutes later. First, Ellis asked for $ 100,000. They started talking.
"I felt like I was in Shark Tank," said Ellis. "In the end, he gave us a check for $ 500,000."
Ellis and Noone were soon added to Y Combinator, a respected program that provides start-up companies with investment opportunities and advice. The initiative has an incredibly low acceptance rate. Over the next three months, the two engineers began working on their idea for a company to print their missiles in 3D and developed the first prototype of their Stargate printer to demonstrate their ability to print real hardware. At the end of this period, they attended the program's demo day to share their ideas with many of Silicon Valley's best-known investors.
After the program, Ellis and Noone set a hectic schedule to see if they could raise enough money to get the theory of relativity going. Over six weeks, Ellis said, they held 90 face-to-face meetings or phone calls to explain their plans in detail and to attract potential investors. After that, Relativity Space raised $ 10 million for Series A. They were a real company.